By Grant Wahl
January 26, 2011

It may seem rather obvious to point this out, but in January 2011 it's good to be Gerard Piqué. Still just 23 years old, the stylish Spanish center back has won the World Cup, two Champions League titles (with Barcelona and Manchester United) and three league crowns in Spain and England. He was recently named one of the world's top four defenders in the 2010 FIFA/FIFPro World XI, and his Barcelona team is on course for a historic season in European soccer.

Piqué is the rare central defender who has the chance to become a breakout global sports star. He's good at what he does. He wins. He even scores a few goals. And away from the field he's a handsome guy who gives interesting interviews in Spanish, Catalan and, yes, English, as I found out when we spoke for half an hour on Tuesday.

Piqué touched on a number of topics, including how to defend Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the differences between Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola, the success of Barcelona's La Masía youth academy and the current Barça team's chances of becoming the greatest club team of all time. Here's our interview, which is edited for length and clarity: First off, how was it meeting Chad Ochocinco, the NFL player? He's a big soccer fan, and I know he was in Barcelona recently to visit with the team.

Piqué: It was great to meet him. He said to me that he loves soccer and that he follows Real Madrid and Barcelona as well. But he's a Madrid fan, he said to me. So I was little angry with him because he's the rival then. Did you give him any stick for that? I know he visited Real Madrid too.

Piqué: I did. When he was in Madrid he spoke with Cristiano [Ronaldo] and with [José] Mourinho as well. So after that he came to Barcelona, and I presented him to all the Barcelona players. Some of them don't speak English, so I had to translate. I explained to him that Barcelona plays more interesting football for the people, so I think now he prefers Barcelona! (Laughs.) I'm just joking. But he was a great guy, and I had a good time with him. You are from Barcelona, and you have been a Barcelona social member since the day you were born. What's the best way to describe your personal relationship to the club Barcelona?

Piqué: My grandfather is the most important thing. When I was born, my grandfather made me a social Barcelona fan. My grandfather followed Barcelona since he was young, and afterward he was a vice-president of the club. My father and mother were Barcelona fans as well, so in my family there is a Barcelona feeling with the club. Does that make it even more special to play for Barcelona and win titles with the team?

Piqué: Yeah. It's different from with other clubs. I remember when I was at Manchester United, it was a great feeling to play for that team. It was a great team, one of the best in the world, and I won the Premier League and Champions League with them. But I feel in Barcelona like it's my home. I start to win titles with Barcelona, and it's such a different feeling. I followed Barcelona when I was a kid, and now as a player wearing that shirt and winning the titles, you can't feel anything better than that. You're still only 23 years old. You've won the World Cup, two Champions Leagues and three league titles in Spain and England. How do you find ways to keep motivating yourself?

Piqué: Just by remembering all the feelings when you win titles. That feeling that you are really happy, and you see all your family, your friends and your teammates. You have to keep that feeling in your mind. It's what you're fighting for, to try to get this feeling again and win the titles at the end of the season. You've been compared at times to Franz Beckenbauer and have even gotten the nickname "Piquénbauer." There are some similarities in the way that you play and the trophies you've won. I know you recently met Beckenbauer, who has been very complimentary of you. Could you tell me about your meeting with him?

Piqué: It was a pleasure to meet him. I didn't have the luck to see him play because I wasn't born yet. But I've seen some videos of him. Maybe we have some similar ways of playing, but he was really big, a really good player. I have to learn more things to arrive to his level. He won two Golden Balls, he won the World Cup in 1974, he won all the trophies. He's one of the best players in history. So when they say "Piquénbauer" I think it's too much. I was lucky to win a lot of titles, but I have to go a long way and work hard to get to his level. You were in Zürich recently to accept your award on FIFA's Best XI of 2010. So were several of your Barcelona teammates. All three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d'Or -- Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta -- came up through Barcelona's development academy, La Masía. So did you. Why has La Masía been so successful?

Piqué: I think when you're young the most important thing is the technical stuff: how to control the ball, how to pass the ball short and long, how to treat the ball really well. And maybe the results are not so important. I remember when I was really young and we played against all the Catalonian teams, Barcelona against Espanyol and all the others. Espanyol always wanted to win, to get the results, and they worked a lot physically with all the young lads. It's good to work the physical stuff, but when they're older they need the technical stuff to be different. Now with Messi and Iniesta and Xavi, they are all really great players because they are technically very good. Maybe physically they are not so good. Now the soccer in America, it has to get more technical than physical, you know. The difference between La Masía and all the others is they do the technical stuff for the lads. I follow you on Twitter, so I know you have a good sense of humor. Who would you say is the funniest player in the Barcelona dressing room?

Piqué: We have a couple of those fun players. There's Dani Alves and there's Leo Messi, but they have different styles of humor. Dani Alves is more with music and dancing, and Messi is more with words, trying to find the tricky sense of humor. And it's funny as well. It's good for the atmosphere in the dressing room, because you can see on the pitch what we have inside the dressing room. It's all about having a good partnership with all the teammates, and then you can win titles on the pitch. You've had to defend against Messi in training and against Cristiano Ronaldo in games. How would you compare the challenges of defending those two players?

Piqué: Both of them are really great players, two of the best in history and right now the two best players in the world maybe. But they have different styles of play. Leo is maybe more determined; he takes the ball and he just wants to arrive at the goal and score goals. Cristiano is more spectacular. He plays more to have fun for the people, so he's got a lot of tricks, and he's really difficult to stop as well. He's really strong, very tall and good in the air. He's really complete, a good athlete. It's difficult to stop them, but you have to concentrate to see the ball, not to watch the legs or the body. Because that is when you're distracted and you're done -- you cannot catch them. You have to try to be quicker than them. It's really difficult, but sometimes you can do it. Barcelona is currently on pace to set a new Spanish record for points in a season and to smash the record for goals in a season. You're also on pace to concede the second-lowest total for goals in La Liga history. Do you think this Barcelona team has a chance to become one of the greatest teams of all time?

Piqué: Yeah, I think so. But all this we'll have to see in the future, in five or 10 years, when you can look back and say, "Oh, that team was great." I think now you can't say this is the best team ever because we have a lot of things to do and we have to win more titles. One team can have five, six, seven years of glory, maybe more. But there is one day that some players have to go, some players are old and don't perform as they did before. And when that time arrives is when you can say this team was great. But now we have to enjoy the moment and try to win more games, more titles, try to beat more records and be the best in all the things we can be. This Barcelona team's control of ball possession is remarkable. Most top teams never have more than 60% of ball possession in a game, and yet Barcelona has 73% in La Liga and 72% in Champions League games. How are you able to do it? And what does that do for the team?

Piqué: It was funny because the other day a coach in Spain said our game can be boring at times. I don't think so, because I think it's really enjoyable to see us play. But for some people maybe they're a bit bored because we have a lot of possession, and I think this is because we train as we play. In training we do a lot of exercises of keeping the ball, just pass-pass-pass and try to have a lot of possession. What you do in training you can see in the game. We do the same, just keep the ball and finally the chances arrive because you keep the ball and you arrive to the goal. Our game is how we train. At Barcelona you are allowed to push up from the back more than most central defenders at other clubs. Does Barcelona treat the center back position differently?

Piqué: Maybe so. Most of the center backs are now really young, and the teams in the world work on physical and tactical things. Maybe what you have to work on when you're young is the technical stuff. When you're 22, 23, you will develop more as a player, and physically you can work hard, but the technical side you have to learn when you are really young. Then you can feel more comfortable with the ball and break from the defense and try to play as a midfielder and sometimes arrive to the other box and try to score some goals. That's what I try to do sometimes. Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 the last time you played. You could face Real Madrid as many as four more times this season in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and Champions League. Do you think the 5-0 will make it difficult for Real Madrid psychologically playing against Barcelona now?

Piqué: No, I don't think so. I think every Clásico is different, and it doesn't matter if one team is really much better than the other, because anything can happen. That game was great for us to win 5-0. Beating Real Madrid 5-0 is always a great experience and a great moment for all the fans. But now if we have to play against them more times, we need to be focused, because if we're not Madrid has so many great players that can beat you. Barcelona faces Arsenal and your friend Cesc Fàbregas in the next round of Champions League. Arsenal seems healthy and strong right now. Do you think Arsenal will perform better against Barça than it did last year?

Piqué: Definitely they will perform better because they will know us much better, and they know how to attack us. They have done really well in the Premier League winning a lot of games. I think they have a really good team, and one of the good things is they want to play like us. They want to play football, not like other teams that just try to defend and win 1-0. I think Arsenal wants to play the ball, wants to keep possession, and it will be a great two games between us. Spain is World Cup champion and European champion. No team has ever won two straight European championships. Can Spain be the first?

Piqué: I think so, definitely. But we have to work really hard. I remember when France in 1998 won the World Cup and then in 2000 won the European championship and then after that never won anything else. We have the experience, and we can see that it's really difficult to keep winning. We'll have to work hard to do it. We have a lot of good players, as we showed in South Africa during the World Cup. But we still have to work hard if we want to win titles. You have played for Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?

Piqué: I think they are similar in how they motivate players, to show them how important are the games and titles, and we have to fight for them. But they are different in maybe how they explain what they want. For example, Pep Guardiola always explains to you not only that you have do this, he explains why you have to do it. He gives you a reason. And maybe you can understand better what soccer is about and how it works. For example, if you pass the ball to Xavi then you have to move, but he explains why you have to move so that Xavi can give you another pass. That's better for you to understand soccer.

Ferguson is more about motivating people. I remember when we were at the training ground, he was more like a manager. It was a little different. [Ferguson's assistant] Carlos Queiroz was the one who gave us the training sessions, and Ferguson had the speech for the game. It was really motivating. How was your experience at Manchester United?

Piqué: To be fair, it was a bit difficult, because I didn't play as much as I wanted, and it's always hard for a young lad who wants to play and show he's capable of playing for United. But now I can see three, four years later that it was a great experience for me, because I give up a lot as a player and as a man. I was living alone in Manchester when I was 17 years old without my family, without my friends, and I grew up a lot. And as a player I had the experience to play alongside Rio [Ferdinand], Cristiano, [Wayne] Rooney, loads and loads of great players. That was a great experience for me. I'm happy to have played for Manchester United. I've heard you were very scared of Roy Keane at the time. I was told to ask you about the mobile phone story with him.

Piqué: It's true, that story! I was a little scared of Roy Keane. He was a great player, and he was a rough character, really strong. If you didn't do the right things he was angry. If you're really young, you're always trying to do things as well as possible because you don't want Roy Keane to be angry. I was young, I was new there and didn't always speak English really well. One time when we were in the dressing room, my phone started to vibrate. Not even ring, just vibrate. And he got mad with me: "Why did you have the phone switched on?" I was 17, so I was really scared. Lastly, you're known as a prankster on your teams. What's your best prank of all time?

Piqué: The best prank? I remember one we did against Cesc Fàbregas. Here in Spain we have these small bottles of milk. And I went with [Carles] Puyol in the national team, and we took all the milk out and put liquid potatoes, potato purée, inside the bottles. You couldn't see if it was milk or potato liquid inside because of the label. So Cesc opened the bottle and started to drink the potatoes. He went crazy against me and Puyol! We were laughing so hard for days and days.

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